Joanne’s Immigration Story – Petaling Jaya, Malaysia to Columbus, Ohio

Family History

Joanne’s maternal grandfather came from a family of farmers in Kerala, India. The family poured what little money they had into Joanne’s grandfather’s future, so he could go to Malaya (now called Malaysia), get an education, and find a job. As he got older, pressure mounted for him to find a wife, so he returned to India for an arranged marriage. After the wedding, he went back to Malaysia with his new wife to start their lives together.

Above: Joanne’s mother’s cousin drew this family tree of how everybody is related when Joanne visited India in 2010.

Childhood

Joanne was born in Petaling Jaya, a small suburb of Malaysia’s largest city, Kuala Lumpur. It was a quiet place back then but is now a lively place, congested with traffic and people. Joanne’s mother worked as a software programmer, and her dad worked in human resources for a Japanese company. Her grandparents lived ten minutes away, so she saw them often. Joanne and her two siblings would often play in the evenings in the park by her home. 

Joanne’s father’s family is Christian, and her mother’s family is Hindu, but she was brought up Christian.

“Identity was tough because when you are Indian and Hindu, it is easy to define. Being a Christian Indian, I identified more with Western culture than Indian culture, but at the same time, I am Indian. People would say things like “go back to your own country”. I don’t think I could survive in India! [laughing]” (audio below)

Dreams

Joanne’s childhood dream was to become a pediatrician and work for the United Nations, but she quickly realized just how difficult that would be. She felt “stifled and stuck” in Malaysia. In this country, minority ethnic groups, like Indians, are at a disadvantage economically and socially.

“No matter how good I am, I can only get as far as my skin color would let me.” (audio below)

One of Joanne’s friends in high school had top marks but couldn’t get a scholarship to study medicine because she was Indian. Her classmates, who were Malay (the ethnic majority) and had subpar grades, were getting scholarships.

“I was so mad for her and for the students out there in the villages who would never get a chance no matter how well they performed!”

Joanne knew she needed to leave Malaysia someday. 

United States

In 2002, Joanne’s mother got a job as a software programmer in Denver, Colorado. Joanne arrived in Denver at age 15, but within two years, her mother’s company had downsized, and the family had no choice but to move back to Malaysia in 2004. In 2008 Joanne returned to the US to study actuarial science at the University of Illinois. After graduation, she returned to Malaysia, looking for a job. Joanne saw that The Edge Malaysia (a financial newspaper) was looking for a writer. She knew she could write, so she applied, got the job, and ended up working as a financial journalist for a few years.

“Writing has been something that I’ve always done since I was young. I’d get tons of books for Christmas and birthdays. I remember having a journal when I was eight or nine – just observing people and writing about it.”

Winners

In 2011, Joanne met Bryan, the man who would later become her husband. She had just returned to Malaysia from Illinois, and he had returned from Florida. After their marriage, she and her husband also entered the US green card lottery system – even though Joanne feels like she “never wins anything.” She couldn’t believe it when they both won! 

The weekend before they left Malaysia for the US, their friends threw them a barbeque party. Everyone had written them a letter, and Joanne’s siblings gave them to her at the airport. It was emotional, waiting for the plane, reading these letters.

“There were rough times in the first few months after getting to Ohio, so those letters were a big help.” (audio below)

Ohio

Joanne and her husband moved to the US in 2014, first to Virginia, then to Columbus, Ohio.

“Columbus still is not a big city. I miss that a lot. I miss taking the train somewhere. It’s been an adjustment, having a more quiet life.” 

The Hoover Dam, near her home, is a place where Joanne loves to go to reflect. 

“It gives me the perspective that there is a road ahead, and to never stop exploring because there is so much out there. I am afraid of falling into a rut. I don’t know if I will stay in Ohio for that long, because there is so much of the world to see.” 

Grandmother

Joanne often thinks about her maternal grandmother migrating from India to Malaysia. She was 16 when her family arranged her marriage to Joanne’s grandfather, who was 32. India’s caste system had a significant impact on their lives – her grandfather was from a higher caste. He was actually supposed to marry Joanne’s grandmother’s older sister, but when he saw her grandmother, he chose her. After the wedding, she boarded a ship for a country unknown to her.

“My grandmother left her entire family to go to Malaya with my grandfather – a man she barely knew. She then had five kids, and her whole life was devoted to her family. That’s all she knew. I connect with her story now, as an immigrant myself, and try to live my life to the fullest, realizing that she never had the same opportunity.”

Joanne has always been incredibly close to her grandmother, and her aunts often joke that Joanne’s her grandmother’s favorite.

Joanne asked her grandmother how she felt about getting on that ship to an unknown country. She told her she was scared but also excited. Joanne felt the same way coming to the US but knows that she had the advantages of knowing the language and a husband she knew. (audio below)

In 2012, her grandmother started giving her jewelry away to her grandchildren. She gave Joanne some gold bangles [see the photo above].

“These bangles are a nice reminder of her, and gold is so important to our culture. I hold on to them and hope that one day I can pass them on to my grandkids. My grandmother is one of the few people I miss a lot.”

Batik

Joanne has always loved batik, the fabric artform of SouthEast Asia. She came up with the idea for her own company and launched Kain & Co (Kain means cloth in Malay) on Etsy in 2017. She hopes that the company can help the women who make the items, as a portion of the sales goes to an education trust and to help the women develop their skills.

Above: A pillow with a Sarawakian design from Kain & Co

Differences

Joanne feels like she can truly be herself in America, whereas in Malaysia, that was never the case. She hopes Malaysia will become a place where all people can have opportunities regardless of their ethnic background.

“I hope younger people across the races will see the importance of being united and look past the old way things were done.”

Still, Joanne misses her family in Malaysia and how easy it was to make friends there. 

In Malaysia, anybody was willing to help you with anything. Here you are more alone. I remember the day my grandfather passed away. He passed away in the morning, and by 10 o’clock the house was bustling with family friends who brought food over. I don’t see that as much here. I miss that dependence on the people around you. (audio below)

Recently Joanne’s husband decided to fill their wall with iconic pictures from Malaysia’s famous tourist sites like the Cameron Highlands and Malacca as a reminder of home [see the above photo]. (audio below)

Future

Today Joanne works as a User Experience Content Strategist at an Insurance and Financial Services Company. Her husband is Head of Department at an international energy company.

Joanne and her husband initially connected over their shared interest in adventure and exploration. A big part of why they moved to the US was to try something different. Joanne isn’t sure where they will live in the future, but she has always dreamed of moving to Europe. 

In 2015 Joanne visited Ellis Island for her first time.

“I remember standing where immigrants used to come in. I was thinking about how it is in human nature to want more for yourself and your family no matter what time in history or what place you are from.” (audio below)

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Sohini’s Immigration Story – Hounslow, the United Kingdom to Duluth, Georgia

Family History

Sohini’s family’s story of how they came to Britain began a long time ago during her grandfather’s early adulthood. The British had colonized India and were recruiting Indian people for all types of work. Sohini’s grandfather could speak and write English, so they hired him as a clerk and sent him to Kenya to work on the construction of a railroad. All eleven of his children, including Sohini’s mother, were born in Africa with British citizenship.

Childhood

Sohini’s father was born in India and met her mother through their arranged marriage. Sohini was born in Hounslow, a suburb outside of London. She and her brother grew up surrounded by an extensive support system of 15 cousins. They went to school and temple together and visited each other’s houses all the time. Sohini even thought some of her cousins were her brothers and sisters.


Above: Sohini (wearing purple on the bottom right) in Gujarati attire with her cousin and friends for a folk dance competition in England.

Sohini’s parents worked in London, and the family was “getting by” at best. Her father had a factory job, and her mother worked at the elementary school as the supervisor of all the “dinner ladies” (the women who would make sure the children ate their lunch).

“Everywhere we went we kind of adopted a little British granny. This is Violet holding me [photo below]. My mom worked two jobs, so Violet would help us out. She lived in the same government housing building as us and made the best homemade shoestring french fries.”

South Wales

The family made a move to South Wales when Sohini was six years old to see if they could have greater economic success. Her parents decided to buy a corner shop in a predominantly Welsh area with some Jamaican immigrants, but no Indian people.

“I was kind of uncomfortable when we first moved there because there wasn’t anyone who was Indian – a few kids were Pakistani. I didn’t fit in, I got bullied, and I will never forget this: They gathered around me, and there’s a song called “brown girl in the ring” – it goes something like this [sings the song]” (audio below)

Sohini did make friends at school eventually, and she does have some positive memories from Wales, especially the field trips to see castles and museums. She has always loved history – anything Medieval or Victorian. Throughout their time living in South Wales, her family took every opportunity to go back to London to visit their extended family. 

Art

Sohini loved making art from an early age, but never felt supported with this passion.

“I wasn’t encouraged by parents to pursue anything in art. It had to be stable and where I could make a lot of money. They kept pushing me to be a doctor or a lawyer like most Indian parents.”

While in Wales, Sohini remembers her art teacher encouraging her and telling her she was a talented painter. Even with this encouragement, Sohini hasn’t picked up a paintbrush since then.

Crochet

Crocheting is a form of art her parents encouraged. Sohini’s grandma crocheted, taught it to her mom, who then taught Sohini while at the corner store. Since she wasn’t allowed to go out like her brothers were, Sohini had to find something to pass the time. The boys had “free reign”, something that Sohini says is common in Indian families.

She especially loves the rhythm of crocheting.

 “Once you read the pattern and get it in your head it’s just second nature. The colors and the satisfaction of making something when you get to the end of it.”

This passion has continued, and crocheting has brought her peace in stressful times.

“If I could sit at home and crochet all day, I would.” (audio below)

Above: Sohini and her classmates in Wales

Overall the experiment of moving to Wales didn’t work out the way her parents had hoped. Sohini’s uncle was living in Atlanta, Georgia, and had submitted an application for Sohini’s parents in 1982. It wasn’t until a decade later that they got a letter from the US consulate in London saying they approved the application.

Georgia

In 1994, when Sohini was 13, they seized the opportunity to move to the United States. When they first landed in Georgia, they moved into her uncle’s two-bedroom Atlanta apartment – one family in one room, one in another.

“It wasn’t a good time. I was depressed. Here we had nobody. It was a lot more expensive to call the UK from the US in the early 90s, so I wrote a lot of letters to my cousins and friends.”

She remembers how sad her mother [below] was as well. She had never been so far away from her mother and her sisters. 

After nine months, her uncle kicked their family out. Luckily Sohini’s brother, who is good at striking up a conversation with anyone, knew the woman in charge of the apartment complex. She helped the family find an empty apartment in the same building, and slowly they filled that empty apartment with donated furniture. 

Above: “This is our first Thanksgiving in America. We had never celebrated it before. That chicken was bland!”

American Dream

The economic American Dream never materialized for her parents. Her father ran an ice cream shop for a while, and then a dry cleaner.

“My dad’s just not good at running businesses. None of them have worked.”

Sohini’s mom worked at a daycare for a while, then at KFC for more than a decade. 

Above: Sohini at her high school in Atlanta

Identity

Sohini says the experience of arriving as an immigrant to Atlanta in 1994 was a “true culture shock”. It wasn’t as diverse as it is today. The people she encountered in this new country were mostly either white or black and a few were from Mexico. Sohini’s appearance and background confused people- an Indian from the U.K. who had big curly hair. They didn’t know how to place her. Sohini was regularly asked, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” and most people assumed she was “mixed or Hispanic”.

“If I told them I was Indian, I got asked what tribe. They really didn’t know India was part of Asia. I would say I was Asian, and they would say you don’t look Asian. Lots of confusion and having to explain what I was. Add in that I was born in the U.K., and it was even more confusing”. (audio below)

On the rare occasions when she did encounter another person from India, they didn’t connect – they had different diets and a fashion sense. Most of Sohini’s friends ended up being African American or Latino. 

Sohini found it strange that she had to take ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, even though English was her first language. 

“We walked into this ESL class and started speaking to the teachers, and they were wondering why we were there. I was born in England. They just made us read books and do book reports.” (audio below)

From Sohini’s memory, the 1996 Summer Olympics seemed to change the culture of Atlanta. These games exposed people to other religions and cultures, and backgrounds. After the Olympics, Sohini felt a greater sense of belonging.

When Sohini finished high school with a high GPA and had scholarships available to her, she still decided not to go to college. Her dad wouldn’t let her move away to go to school.

“He wouldn’t let me go anywhere, so I was like ‘f-this I am going to stay at home and work.’”

Work

Sohini started working at the same daycare her mother had worked at years earlier.

Above: A surprise birthday party for Sohini at the daycare where she worked

About three years later, the guy she dated at the time said he wouldn’t talk to her if she didn’t apply to college again. He wasn’t joking, and she knew he was right. Sohini thought about how her parents didn’t have more than high school education, and she knew she could succeed at the college level. Sohini started taking classes at the University of Georgia to become a teacher; then, she decided she wanted to work more in curriculum development focused on adult education. 

“I could not find a job related to my career for the longest time. I’ve never found a real opportunity where I can get paid to help adults learn.”

After graduating, Sohini started writing training materials for companies and has been doing that for more than a decade. She still dreams of putting her degree to use, working with non-profit groups, and helping homeless adults learn a skill. 

Above: Sohini’s cousin’s daughter was taking pictures to send to India, to find a husband. She convinced Sohini to come with her and have her picture taken too.

Meeting Michael

To graduate from the U of G, Sohini needed to take an economics class. Michael, a Georgia-native, was regularly sitting next to her. Sohini always wrote down everything the professor said, while Michael, who was confident in the subject, was skipping class and not taking notes when he was there. He eventually asked to look at her notes.

“He was like, ‘these are really detailed notes. Do you need help?’ and I was like, ‘Yes, I’m so glad you asked!’” (audio below)

Michael ended up becoming her tutor, and while she had a boyfriend at the time, they decided to stay in touch. What Michael didn’t know yet was that Sohini’s relationship at the time wasn’t healthy. She had isolated herself from her friends, who were telling her to leave this emotionally abusive partner. One night she called Michael and he listened, supported her and did not judge. They started dating and have been together for more than a decade.

Tragedy

Sohini and Michael wanted to have a child, but their journey wasn’t an easy one. Their daughter Maya was stillborn at five and a half months. It was traumatic.

They were running out of options for how they were going to have a child.

“We got into the point in our fertility journey where the doctor said that’s it. It’s not good for you, mentally or physically.”

They had sold their house and moved back in with her parents.

Two things that helped Sohini through all of the fertility treatments were crocheting and Harry Potter books. 

“I was hooked. Every time a book came out, I got it at midnight and would sit and read it. It helped me during that period. I had distanced myself from everybody. I didn’t know who I was anymore, and I found myself again with Michael’s help, but Harry Potter kept me sane”.

Surrogacy

Michael and Sohini started thinking about adopting a child from India; then a friend brought up the idea of surrogacy. That idea stuck, and less than a year later, they were off to India to transfer Sohini’s embryo to a surrogate. The whole thing was a “whirlwind.” On their way to India to pick up their son, they stopped in London, where the family had organized a surprise baby shower.

“I just remember being so anxious. I remember looking at him through the window. This is my child.” (audio below)

“He’s a blessing. He’s a miracle. I was reading Harry Potter, and I was like, ‘oh my God, he’s the boy that lived!’ We couldn’t be happier.” (audio below)

Getting Looks

Atlanta, and Northern Georgia in general, have changed a lot since Sohini moved there. Today, Sohini would describe the area as multicultural and accepting. It still doesn’t feel that way everywhere in Georgia. Sohini remembers the first time she went to visit her cousin, who lives in the southern part of the state. “We would get looks. God forbid we stopped anywhere”!

Sohini also thinks she and Michael – an interracial couple with a mixed child – receive negative looks.

“We were in Athens [Georgia] yesterday at our favorite sushi place. As we were leaving, this woman gave me the dirtiest look and looked down at our son. I just smiled at her.”

Sohini says the Indian community can be just as bad, judging her for marrying a white guy. 

“I look back at them and smile because it’s my life, not theirs.” (audio below)

Full Circle

When Sohini went to India on vacation, she was able to visit her family’s ancestral home. On the front porch, she found this sewing machine [see the above photo]- the one her mother and all of her sisters learned to sew on. Sohini brought it back to Georgia.

Sohini isn’t sewing often, but she continues the family tradition of crocheting with a passion. She recently made a turtle, a mermaid, two Star Wars hats, and a chicken hat that someone ordered to give their granddaughter for Christmas. Sohini also made her son, ‘the miracle boy that lived’, an elephant.

#FINDINGAMERICAN

To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.